— some thoughts for the Action Conversation
by vivian Hutchinson
June 2021 25 min read download as Masterclass PDF
I HAVE BEEN coming to this piece of the Brooklands Bush since I was a child. The bush is on the edge of Pukekura Park in the heart of New Plymouth City. This small pocket of old Taranaki lowland forest has survived the “developments” of settlers and farmers over the last two centuries, and my old intermediate school is right next door.
In the New Plymouth suburbia of the 1960s, it was a welcome patch of wildness and frozen memory. I loved all the varieties of green I could see, and the smells of this place. If I was biking into the centre of the city I would find any excuse to come through this bush and just breathe deeper than seemed possible on the usual grey streets.
My teachers had brought their classrooms here for years – to study insects in the leaf litter, to name the native trees, and to discover the layers of life that were available for us all to notice if we simply slowed down and paid attention.
And right next to one of the main gravel pathways is an ancient elder, the Historic Puriri tree that we were told had been standing here for over 2,000 years. I remember how one teacher glowed as she explained that the tree had been a seedling at the same time that Jesus was walking and preaching in the Palestine.
This was interesting, but I was much more impressed when I realised that this Puriri would have already been an old tree at the time when Robert the Bruce was hiding in a cave in Scotland, or when the Polynesian ocean voyagers arrived on these shores in the Tokomaru, Kurahaupō and Aotea canoes.
This was a tree that held far too much Time for a schoolchild to really comprehend. But it wasn’t going anywhere. And children tend to grow up.
THE NEW PLYMOUTH District Council had appointed me to their Community Development advisory committee in the late 1980s. I had co-founded a community organisation that had set up the Taranaki Work Trust to run training programmes for local unemployed, and had also established an Employment Resource Centre which we called Starting Point.
So naturally, I was keen to be on the advisory committee, and one of our first recommendations was to suggest that the council establish measurements that could track the local impact of the national economic changes affecting New Plymouth families. We wanted these measures to assess how the new political policies of the mid-1980s were affecting our communities in terms of joblessness, poverty, housing, health, education and other indicators of local well-being.
But we soon ran into a brick wall as the council officials had a completely different understanding of both the role of their advisory committee, and the purpose of community development.
I got into some unproductive arguments, and was particularly frustrated that the advisory meetings just seemed to be focused on very short-term matters, or were constantly distracted by the latest political or personality dramas happening amongst the council staff, or around the main council table.
We all seemed to be losing the ability to pay attention to a longer-term story, and to the consequences of national and local policies on our communities.
I decided to address my own frustrations by preparing for each of these meetings by going for a short walk beforehand in the Brooklands Bush. Talking to that 2000-year old Puriri tree helped me get into the headspace where I could more patiently push for longer-term values and objectives.
It certainly helped me, although my contribution to this committee was doomed to be a short one.
Within months, the senior council staff and the Mayor unilaterally decided to change the direction of their Community Development activities, and they disbanded their advisory committee.
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THE FINAL WORKSHOP of our Masterclass for Active Citizenship is the Action Conversation. It is a series of conversations over a three-hour period in which the participants get to talk about what they plan to do after their four months of meeting and talking together.
We begin the workshop with a thought experiment which seeks to expand the Time horizon of their action plans.
We ask participants to close their eyes and reflect on their whakapapa or genealogy as active citizens. This may be the whakapapa of a bloodline from parents and grand-parents, but it may also include other important linkages of faith and thought-leadership from mentors and friendships who have guided their activities as citizens.
Settle your thoughts on that part of yourself that is a descendant. Yes, a descendant of blood, but also of ideas, of values and cultures and heritage. Reach back generations, perhaps even hundreds of years ... and stand in that river of Life that is flowing into and through you.
And then the participants are invited to switch their attention to the future.
Shift your thoughts now to that part of yourself that is an ancestor. Yes, an ancestor in terms of DNA, but also of the actions of faith and wisdom and integrity that are flowing on from you. Imagine this river flowing forward generations, perhaps even hundreds of years. Imagine the contributions you are making today that may still be felt in a distant future.
And then the participants are invited to bring their attention back into the room, and to the present time.
Shift your thoughts to that part of you that is a citizen of right here and now. You are present. Here, you get to be the creator of the communities you are connected to. You get to be the steward of the things that need to be looked after. You are the producer of the possibilities that all our children will inherit. Your job today is to reach into the river of Life that is flowing through you, and to name and claim the gifts with which you can bend the shape of our common good.
As people are invited to open their eyes, they acknowledge their fellow citizens also sitting in the room. They may be freshly aware of the many-named rivers of Life that are gathered there in the disguise of their friends and neighbours. They may also be aware of a much longer now than when they first began.
And they have remembered that they have always been part of communities with the leadership and helping hands of active citizens.
And there’s still plenty of work to do.
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THE TWO PRIMARY action tools of a citizen are Love and Power. And these are instruments of Life that are abundant in their availability.
Love, in terms of our citizenship, is generated by our willingness to care about something and our ability to take care of the things that need our support and protection.
Power, in terms of our citizenship, is generated by our willingness to connect, to organise, and to steer the things that matter in the direction of a common good.
The path of our citizenship is one that is constantly growing our awareness and maturity in terms of how these qualities are expressed.
We need this maturity, because Love and Power have both generative and de-generative sides to their nature. They are not just instruments of Life ... they are tricky Gods. If left to act alone, Love and Power are qualities that can also cause all sorts of havoc in our lives, and in our communities.
Martin Luther King Jnr. points out that
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.
They are qualities that need each other. But it’s another balancing act for grown-ups.
It’s another version of the over-lapping circles which reveal a necessary common ground. This common ground is created as these two very powerful instruments of Life begin to have their own Action Conversation.
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ADAM KAHANE is a consultant to business, government and civil society groups who want to address their toughest and most complex challenges. He has had a big influence on a generation of community activists, particularly when he published his ground-breaking book Solving Tough Problems (2004). His later book Power and Love (2010) outlines his theories and practice of how these two important qualities work together to produce social change.
It is an error in popular culture to imagine that these qualities are opposing forces – that “all Power corrupts” or “all you need is Love”.
Kahane points out that Love is what makes Power generative instead of degenerative, and Power is what makes Love generative instead of degenerative. They are perfectly complementary.
Kahane quotes a fellow management consultant, Charles Hampden-Turner, who offers some insight as to how to reconcile the common view that these qualities are opposing forces. Hampden-Turner points out that what makes these contrasting values seem so oppositional is that both are usually presented to us as if they are frozen at one moment in time. In reality, their effect on our lives is much more dynamic.
In his book, Adam Kahane says that learning to act with both Power and Love is like learning to walk on two legs:
We can’t walk on only one leg, just as we can’t address our toughest social challenges only with power or only with love. But walking on two legs does not mean either moving them both at the same time or always being stably balanced. On the contrary, it means moving first one leg and then the other and always being out of balance – or more precisely, always being in a dynamic balance. – Adam Kahane
BILL McKIBBEN is an American environmentalist, activist, and journalist who has written extensively on climate change and the impact of global warming. His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book on the climate emergency that was written for a general audience.
McKibben is a co-founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org which is active in 188 countries worldwide. The movement is named after 350 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide, which scientists have identified as the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point. Today, the atmosphere is at 415 parts per million and rising – the highest level ever in human history.
We're no longer at the point of trying to stop global warming. Bill McKibben acknowledges that it’s too late for that. Our international efforts are now aimed at trying to keep the emergency from becoming a complete and utter calamity. The fossil fuel industry has five times more coal and oil and gas than it's safe to burn. And their current business plans are locking us into a future that we can't survive.
Climate is the crisis on our doorstep that really changes everything. There is not a community on Planet Earth that will escape the consequences of global warming, and every Action Conversation we have from now on will in some way be influenced by this emergency.
Bill McKibben has found himself almost constantly on speaking tours, and one of the questions he is often asked is: "What can I do? or, What can one individual do to make a real difference?"
His advice is sharp and to the point: Don’t be an individual.
As important as individual action is, McKibben argues that it is not going to be the way to solve the climate crisis. This is because we are long past the point where our personal and noble actions at home will be enough to make a real difference.
McKibben says that the most important thing an individual can do is to join together with others to create movements that will be big and broad enough to actually change systems and policies.
This is no easy ask in the Western World where our main economic and social policy drivers over the last 40 years have been emphasising our individuality and fortifying our acts of consumerism and self-interest.
It is not only the muscles of our citizenship that have atrophied to that of the comic-book 98-pound weakling. The muscles that propel our necessary collective action have also become weak and impotent.
But if we are going to address an issue like the climate crisis – and address it at a structural and systemic level – then it is going to take community. It’s going to take the “We”.
Our future on this planet will be totally dependent on our ability to have the Action Conversations that reveal our common cause with one another.
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THE ACTION CONVERSATION at the Masterclass continues as we ask the participants to break into pairs or small groups in order to talk about their own plans for making a difference in their communities.
The participants are given a worksheet which is simply a device for having a conversation with themselves. They are invited to fill it in with notes and statements, or with pictures and colours – whatever works for them in order to have the conversations they need.
The first questions are about unlocking the instruments of Life – Love and Power – which set the direction of their active citizenship.
When I look at my community, my nation, and our planet, what breaks my heart is ...
If I could access all the resources I need, the main thing I would do for the sake of my community, my nation, and our planet is ...
There’s no exam taking place here. Participants are not expected to hand in their worksheets. They are encouraged to give themselves permission to play. Half-baked ideas are very welcome. Quarter-thoughts are OK. This isn’t a commitment they are making ... it is a conversation.
After five minutes of quietly thinking and making notes alone, participants are invited to link up with other people in the room and share their initial thoughts.
They are encouraged to practice strategic questioning and active listening. These are the questions and attention that enable us to dig deeper and explore possibilities.
What is your most pressing issue here?
How does it affect you personally?
What is the future going to look like if nothing is changed?
How would you prefer this future to look?
Then our Action Conversation moves into the details. The participants are invited to get specific about what they are imagining.
The questions that follow are based on my work with the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship – a learning community of changemakers with whom I was organising retreats and meetings from 2006-2012.
I wrote up the stories of this Fellowship, and described many of the things we had been learning together, in my book called How Communities Heal (2012). All participants of the Masterclass had been given a copy of this book as a way of anchoring our conversations in practical examples of the entrepreneurship and innovation that is very much alive and thriving in New Zealand communities.
When I first published the book, I was invited to speak at various conferences about the Fellowship and its membership. I was regularly asked: What makes these people special? They have some very inspiring stories about what they are doing ... Are there particular things that make them effective in what they do?
I should point out that this group of social entrepreneurs wouldn’t see themselves as particularly special people. Yes, they have had some very interesting lives — but there’s no magic or fairy tales at work here.
If I was to describe any special talent that this diverse group of people had in common, I would simply say that they were citizens who knew how to have an Action Conversation with themselves.
For the sake of my speeches, I would go on to describe four main qualities which I saw the Fellowship members demonstrating in their own lives. These are the qualities that turn an active citizen into an effective changemaker. They are
1. Having an ability to make Time in their lives, and making their time work for them.
2. Having a clarity about the things they need to do, and particularly those things that “have their name on it”.
3. Having the attention that sees all sorts of assets in their communities which most people don’t usually notice.
4. Having the social skills that can find and connect allies who will turn up for support and collective action.
In designing our Masterclass workshop, these four qualities have been turned into the final questions of our dialogue together. And participants are encouraged to keep on being specific:
How can I free up at least five percent of my time to become a more effective active citizen?
What are the first ten things that I can get on with right now?
What are the five main gifts and assets that I can bring to these possibilities?
Who are the ten people I first need to connect with in order to make these possibilities happen?
You may appreciate that, by the time we have finished the workshop, there is a tangible sense of Love and Power in the room. And very few of the participants are thinking of themselves just as individuals.
They are figuring out how to work for community, in community.
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IN 2009, the New Plymouth District Council decided that it urgently needed to expand a driveway that allowed trucks to bring in gear for the music concerts that were being held at the Bowl of Brooklands, an outdoor venue that is right next door to the Brooklands Bush.
The Bowl has hosted many of Taranaki’s biggest concerts and music festivals over the years, including the annual WOMAD Festival, and concerts for Elton John, Sting, Paul Simon, Simply Red, and Fleetwood Mac. These music groups might turn up with large containers of staging and equipment, and their vehicles often had a precarious time entering the venue when using the existing driveway.
The trouble was, the plans for expanding the driveway meant taking out several hundred-year old Puriri trees, including another Notable and listed 400-year old forest giant which the former Pukekura Park curator, George Fuller, had named Enigma – because of the tree’s ability to survive and thrive while perched on the side of a cliff.
The Notable Enigma, or George Fuller’s Puriri tree, beside the driveway into the Bowl of Brooklands. (photo by vivian Hutchinson)
I had known George as he had been the curator of Pukekura Park for many years. During the 1980s, when I was part of starting an organic training garden for local unemployed, George was one of the first to generously turn up and offer his help and advice. He was a respected horticulturist, and a stalwart of the Taranaki Orchid Society. After his retirement, he was awarded an MBE for service to orchids and the New Plymouth community.
When the Council announced its determination to go ahead with the revamped driveway and remove the trees, George Fuller and other Friends of the Park were equally determined to protest and resist the developments.
It was a classic New Plymouth controversy complete with delegations to the council and letters to the editor of the Taranaki Daily News. One journalist observed that “...this is a battle fought with smiles and first names by people who have to live with each other whatever the outcome.”
Even with George’s status as a former curator and horticultural expert, it was looking as though their efforts were still not going to be enough to convince the council to change its mind.
So George tried something different. He put on his suit and his MBE medal, and told people he was going to stand at the trees each lunchtime for a week and explain to anyone who turned up just why these trees were special and important.
This was not so much a public protest, but an affirmation of his role as a kaitiaki, or protector of these trees. And he was demonstrating this not as an expert, or as a former employee of the council ... but as an active citizen.
And ultimately, the council did change its mind. More meetings were held, and some prominent local engineers took up the challenge of redesigning the driveway so that it could continue to proceed around the trees, rather than through them. As a result, the precarious life of the Notable Enigma continues to be part of our Brooklands Bush.
And a few months later, in honour of his stand, the 80-year old George Fuller was declared Person of the Year by the Taranaki Daily News.
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WE’VE LEARNED SO MUCH more about the natural world since I was studying insects and the names of native trees in Brooklands as a schoolchild.
Yes, we know much more about the disastrous changes that humans have been making to our environment, and the planetary responsibilities that we have all yet to fully accept.
Yet we also know that even a modest patch of old growth forest like what we have at Brooklands is a much more wonderful and surprising thing than we previously imagined.
It is only in the last generation that scientists have begun to recognise that trees are social beings. Their lives are as complex as any animal.
They communicate with each other through their roots, and in an astounding collaboration with the fungal “wood wide web” that permeates the soil. Trees support each other as they grow by sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling. Together they create an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group.
In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees (2015), author and forester Peter Wohlleben refers to research from the University of Bonn that indicates that trees have “brain-like structures” at their root tips that analyze toxic substances and soil conditions and then send electrical impulses to redirect root growth.
Beneath the soil, tree roots and the mycorrhizal networks of exchange are constantly communicating, and growing and repairing and regenerating. This is an intelligent infrastructure that keeps on delivering the possibilities of Life.
We now know that, as social beings, the Notable trees are never alone. They are part of a community. In Brooklands, they are a part of a woven fabric that includes the Karaka, Kohekohe, Pukatea, Rewarewa, Nikau, Kawakawa, Tawa, and Titoki ... not to mention the birds and insects and moulds and mushrooms that also know this as home.
The health of the bush is not down to any individual tree or species. The smallest unit of sustainable well-being here is a community.
And so it is with the people and neighbourhoods that surround our public parks and reserves. The smallest unit of well-being for human beings is not found in ourselves as individuals, or even as extended families ... but as communities.
The enigma here is that, after all this Time, we are still learning how to recognise it.
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IN THE PURSUIT of well-being for our communities, we start to understand that it is not so much that you get to have an Action Conversation. Instead, we get to realise that all our actions are a conversation.
Our actions are conversations that pull and stretch between our invitations and our gifts, our dissent and our commitments, our sense of ownership and our awareness of the possibilities.
Our citizenship is essentially an action strategy where our connecting, our doing, our listening and our learning are all happening at the same time.
This action strategy is what enables our communities to awaken, heal and thrive.
Notes and Links
vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012). He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.
First published online in June 2021
This paper Common Cause is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca
Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide
The Brooklands Puriri tree (vitex lucens) is listed as Category 1 Notable Tree of New Zealand (TR/0135). Known by many as the “Historic Puriri”, its actual age is shrouded in myth and romanticism. The surveyor and ethnologist Percy Smith (1840-1922) may have been one of the earliest to assert that the tree was over 2,000 years old. A columnist writing on “Giant Trees” in the Nelson Daily in 1931 enthusiastically reported: “The late Mr Percy Smith estimated the age of this wonderful old tree at from 2000 to 4000 years – a grown tree perhaps before the Christian era! Verily it is a link with the past. It is one of the most valuable trees in the Dominion.”
The Brooklands Park information sign that is currently beside the Historic Puriri cites a visiting English writer and agricultural reformer, Sir H. Rider Haggard, who also estimated the tree to be over 2000 years old. Haggard was better known as an author of adventure fiction and a best-selling pioneer of the “lost world” literary genre. Regardless of the truth or fancy of its actual age, the Historic Puriri genuinely earns its title as one of the oldest and biggest of its species in our nation. And for this generation, it is an elder and icon that is reminding us of the longer-term heartbeat of the natural world of which we are a part.
Photopage: Brooklands — THE BROOKLANDS BUSH — (centre right) the Historic Puriri, with vivian Hutchinson’s grand-niece and nephew, Charlotte and Harrison Gibson (2017) Brooklands, New Plymouth, Taranaki. photographs by vivian Hutchinson
Long-term thinking ... Stewart Brand, Daniel Hillis and Brian Eno set up the Long Now Foundation in 1996 in order to foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years. Stewart Brand's book The Clock of the Long Now (2008) is a fundamental reframing of the way people think in a faster-cheaper-disposable age. www.amazon.com/dp/B003P9XCY4
see also The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking (2020) by Roman Krznaric www.amazon.com/dp/1615197303
Martin Luther King on Love and Power ... is from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., (ed. Clayborne Carson 1986) www.amazon.com/dp/0446676500. The fuller quotation is “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Adam Kahane .... see Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities (2004) www.amazon.com/dp/1576754642; and Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change (2010) www.amazon.com/dp/1605093041
Charles Hampden-Turner ... quoted by Adam Kahane from Charting the Corporate Mind (1993) www.amazon.com/dp/0029137063
Bill McKibben ... for more, see Do The Math: The Movie (2013) directed by Kelly Nyles and Jared P. Scott. Full movie is at https://youtu.be/IsIfokifwSo
“Bill McKibben: The Question I Get Asked the Most”, in EcoWatch Environmental News 14 October 2016 www.ecowatch.com/bill-mckibben-climate-change-2041759425.html
Bill McKibben took up the challenge of a different sense of Time, when Time (the weekly news magazine) asked him to write their cover story for their special issue on 2050: The Fight For Earth, published on 12th September 2019. McKibben decided to imagine that he has reached the middle of the century and he looked back and see how we dramatically changed our society and our economy. His article is both sobering and hopeful. time.com/5669022/climate-change-2050/
common cause ... this is a phrase of action, meaning “to work together with a person, group etc that you do not usually agree with, in order to achieve a shared aim” – Macmillan Dictionary.
Strategic Questioning: An Approach to Creating Personal and Social Change (1997) by Fran Peavey, and edited by vivian Hutchinson https://drive.google.com/open?id=1KTioaDPkUhJk04ribD2zjgTMUyD6W_x3
New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship ... was founded in 2006 with funding from the Tindall Foundation and support from several other philanthropic trusts and community leaders. The Fellowship was initially designed as an experiment that would run for three years, but the membership found the connections and conversations so useful that they kept on meeting for a further three years. They also ran several retreats which included workshops and dialogue with a new generation of social entrepreneurs. The fifteen members of the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship (2006-2012) included: Brian Donnelly, Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o, Gael Surgenor, John Stansfield, Kim Workman, Major Campbell Roberts, Malcolm Cameron, Ngahau and Debbie Davis, Nuku Rapana, Philip Patston, Robin Allison, Stephanie McIntyre, Vivien Maidaborn, and vivian Hutchinson.
Photopage: Fellowship — THE NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR FELLOWSHIP (2006-2012) — photographs by vivian Hutchinson. Workshops and conversations at the NZSEF Retreats at the Vaughan Park Anglican Retreat Centre, Long Bay, Auckland (bottom left) How Communities Heal : Stories of Social Innovation and Social Change (2012) by vivian Hutchinson and the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship. Fellowship members (top row) Brian Donnelly, Vivien Maidaborn, Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o, Kim Workman, Major Campbell Roberts (middle row) John Stansfield, Debbie Davis, Ngahau Davis, Stephanie McIntyre, vivian Hutchinson (bottom row) Gael Surgenor, Malcolm Cameron, Philip Patston, Nuku Rapana, Robin Allison.
How Communities Heal: Stories of Social Innovation and Social Change (2011) by vivian Hutchinson and featuring members of the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship. Available as a book, and also eBook, Kindle and PDF for iPad editions. Individual chapters and resources can also be viewed and downloaded at www.taranaki.gen.nz/hch
George Fuller MBE (1929- 2015) Pukekura Park curator. For more, see “A Tree, a Man, a Council and a Decision” www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/lifestyle/2545175/ and “Old Man of the Park” (August 2009) www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/lifestyle/2554454/
The Notable Enigma, or George Fuller’s Puriri tree ... photograph by vivian Hutchinson (2020)
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) by Peter Wohlleben www.amazon.com/dp/1771642483 explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in forests and the amazing scientific mechanisms behind these wonders, of which we are usually blissfully unaware.
the smallest unit of wellbeing ... “I believe that the community — in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures — is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” — Wendell Berry, American writer, environmental activist, and farmer from his classic essay called “Health is Membership” (1994).
ISBN 978-1-92-717641-2 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en